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Personality Driven Ministry

Carl Trueman has a helpful essay in the current issue of Modern Reformation magazine. In “Reflections on the Reformed Resurgence,” Trueman takes stock of what we can learn about a movement within evangelicalism now over a decade old. Trueman introduces the Reformed resurgence in contrast to another significant trend within American Christianity at the time:

It is now over a decade since Collin Hansen coined the term “young, restless, and Reformed” (YRR) to characterize a rising generation of Christians who had rediscovered the vitality of the central doctrines of the Reformation: Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, and so on. What Hansen (then a journalist with Christianity Today) had noticed was that while much of the trendy Christian media attention focused on the emerging/emergent church, there was another vibrant strand of evangelical Christianity gaining momentum in the United States and beyond. While the emergent gurus, such as Brian McLaren and Tony Jones, were moving in a more non- and perhaps anti-doctrinal direction, other church leaders—John Piper, Tim Keller and so forth—were doing the opposite. They were offering their churches solid, historic, doctrinal teaching, and (perhaps counterintuitively given the dominant relativist ethos of the times) they were gaining large audiences and having influence well beyond the walls of their own churches. 1Carl Trueman, “Reflections on the Reformed Resurgence,” Modern Reformation 27, no. 5 (September/October 2018): 14-21.

Trueman explains how there is “no single point of origin for the Reformed resurgence.” 2Ibid., 15. Rather, it consisted of a “disparate coalition” within Christianity made up of ministries and individuals from within traditional Reformed circles and from without. As one might expect, Trueman sees several major problems with the Reformed resurgence and is skeptical about its future. That said, he is not totally pessimistic when he acknowledges, “Ten years on, only the most cynical of commentators would argue that the YRR has done no good. . . . The YRR is still here and, for all of the past problems and present strains, it could yet have a decent future.” 3Ibid., 21.

PERSONALITY DRIVEN MINISTRY

One of the problems Trueman highlights within the Reformed resurgence has been its dependence on, and cultivation of, a celebrity culture. The problem is one of authority. Personality driven ministry creates the “potential of quasi-ecclesiastical power and influence being exerted on the church lacking biblical warrant and structures of accountability.” 4Ibid., 17. This is true and one of the great dangers of movements within evangelicalism that thrive on larger-than-life personalities. Rather than serve the church, these movements begin to supplant the church as the locus of authority is shifted away from the biblically warranted local church and put onto the parachurch. As Trueman observes, where authority resides has everything to do with whether or not a movement is the handmaiden of the church or its master. 5Ibid., 21.

Personality driven ministry, of course, is not a new problem. For example, this was a problem in the church in first century Corinth. Paul was deeply concerned about the cult of personality that was growing up and creating divisions in the church:

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)

Paul’s point is that the Corinthians should be followers of Christ not of mere men like Apollos, Cephas, or himself. People in the church were lining up behind their favorite personality. You can imagine what some of the rhetoric might have sounded like. One person may have said, “You should hear Apollos preach. He can really bring it!” Another might have responded, “Oh yeah, what about Cephas?! Have you heard his illustration about fishing?” Christ was becoming merely one “personality” among many. Divisions were breaking out and the Lord was being dishonored. Paul makes this point clear when he asks rhetorically, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?” A celebrity culture within the church is so insidious because it breeds idolatry.

If this weren’t enough, there’s another danger with the cult of personality within evangelicalism. The problem is one of redefining the nature of the pastorate.

PASTORS NOT PERSONALITIES

As a seminary professor I’m increasingly concerned that my students are taking their cues for pastoral ministry from the models of the conference circuit rather than the Bible. This is not to say that faithful shepherds are not some of the speakers at the major evangelical conferences. But when even the most faithful pastor is standing on a stage in an arena built for an NBA team or the next major concert tour, there is a cognitive dissonance created in the current or future pastor. The medium does impact the message. And the (unintentional) message being sent is that pastors are rock stars, too.

The problem is, we’re not. And Jesus never intended us to be.

The Bible calls us pastors and teachers, shepherds, elders, overseers, servants, and stewards. 6See, for example, Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 5:1-4; 1 Timothy 3:1-7, 5:17; Titus 1:7; 1 Corinthians 4:1. The apostle Paul not only didn’t think of himself as a celebrity, but declared, “We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things” (1 Corinthians 4:13). The apostle thought this way to ensure that others were more important than himself and so that Christ would be all. Personality driven ministry cannot think this way. The very structures built into the “machine” of movement Christianity mitigate against a biblical understanding of the pastorate. Subtly, shepherds become superstars; pastors become personalities. And when this model is taken back to the local church the membership becomes a means to the end of the pastor’s ministry “platform.” The personality driven minister doesn’t see his life as existing for people’s “progress and joy in the faith” (Philippians 1:25). Rather, the church exists for his progress and joy in professional ministry. And only because of its popularity in evangelicalism do we not see the parallels with our celebrity culture to the faithless shepherds of Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 34.

The apostle Peter gives us a clear picture of the nature of the pastorate in 1 Peter 5:1-4:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

The values Peter upholds for pastoral ministry are not those consistent with the cult of personality. We shepherd rather than use. We long for people’s good rather than begrudgingly work. We gratefully receive rather than shamefully grasp. We serve rather than dominate. In all we do we try to emulate the chief Shepherd Jesus Christ “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).

MORTIFYING CELEBIRTY CULTURE

We need a vision of the pastorate that can withstand the allure of celebrity. And this we have in Acts 20:24 where the apostle Paul reminds the Ephesian elders what makes a pastor’s life valuable: “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”

Paul, of course, was not simply rehearsing this conviction because he enjoyed talking about himself. He was commending a particular vision of ministry to the leaders in the church at Ephesus. Paul was saying, in effect, “Have this mind among yourselves as you consider the work of overseeing God’s church.” The apostle does not ground his worth or value in popularity or worldly recognition. There is only one thing that makes a pastor’s life valuable and it doesn’t have to do with any earthly attainments. The pastor’s value is determined by faithfulness in testifying to the gospel of the grace of God. To put it negatively, if we as pastors are not faithful in gospel ministry, our lives are worthless.

How can Paul’s vision become our vision? How can we begin to count the worth of our life according to faithfulness and not fame? There are at least three theological realities that a pastor must settle in his own heart and mind if he would resist the allure of celebrity and minister with an Acts 20:24 vision.

First, a pastor must believe that he has died. In Galatians 2:20 the apostle Paul exults in what has happened to him in salvation. Since that fateful day on the Damascus road Paul, in a very real sense, considered himself dead. He writes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

The old Paul, the man who persecuted the church in rebellion against God, was “crucified with Christ.” Because of the grace of God in his life, Paul could truly say “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” The fact that Jesus loved him and gave himself for him changed everything for Paul. It was no longer about Paul’s agenda, but God’s; not Paul’s personal goals, but God’s glory; not Paul’s advance, but the gospel’s.

And this is how it must be with us. As pastors we know we have died. Therefore, the life we now live in the flesh is lived with one all-consuming aim: testifying to the gospel of the grace of God. When we died with Christ so did our identity apart from Christ. Our life is now “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). Our lives exist as a living sacrifice for God. All our rights and desires and longings are consumed with Christ—his glory and purposes. So we sing with Isaac Watts,

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood. 7Isaac Watts, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, 1707.

The second conviction a pastor must have if he would resist the siren song of celebrity and have an Acts 20:24 vision for ministry is this: you are not your own. Consider 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

The pastor is one who believes not only that he has died, but that he was purchased by the precious blood of Christ. In other words, the pastor knows that God owns him, he’s been ransomed. This reality has profoundly practical implications not least of which is the understanding that God gets to do with us whatever he determines. We belong to God and, therefore, sing from the heart,

Oh Father, use my ransomed life
In any way You choose
And let my song forever be
My only boast is You 8Jordan Kauflin, All I Have is Christ (Sovereign Grace Praise), 2008.

As a purchased people we are resolved to “glorify God in [our] body.” We don’t live to make ourselves look great, but God. As “those who live” we “no longer live for [ourselves] but for him who for [our] sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:15). Our days exist “no longer for human passions but for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:2). This kind of thinking is diametrically opposed to personality driven ministry.

The third conviction a pastor must have is that the applause of God is infinitely better than the applause of man. Consider the breathtaking reality of Romans 2:29, “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” How can it be that God will praise us? Add to this Zephaniah 3:17, “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” How can it be that God will exult over us with loud singing? It’s possible because God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3). In Christ we have the everlasting favor of God, all omnipotence for us forever. Pastors are free from craving the fleeting applause of man knowing that we have a far greater ovation from the Lord. Indeed, in Christ we have God rejoicing over us with gladness. Why would pastors long for fifteen minutes of fame when we have the eternal applause of God? To adapt a song from the great Reformer, “Let conferences and book deals go, this mortal life also; my name may not thrill, God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever.”

CONCLUSION

We have a beautiful picture of the mortification of celebrity in the life of John the Baptist. John’s disciples were loyal to their leader and appear jealous for John when the crowds begin to leave him and go to Jesus. Seeing this, they come to John and protest, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him” (John 3:26). Perhaps they were “of John” and didn’t appreciate the fact that he was entering the twilight of his ministry. They were getting territorial and sought to protect John’s ministry platform. But John does not share their concern. In fact, he continues to teach them a better way:

John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:27-30).

John makes it clear that he is not the Christ, but a friend of the bridegroom who is rejoicing at his appearing. John was more than content to fade into the background as Christ took centerstage.

Faithful pastors will likewise make it clear that they are not the Christ, but a friend of the bridegroom who is determined to do what a friend of the bridegroom does: make the groom look great. Are you a friend of the bridegroom? If so, you will reject the cult of celebrity and live for the increase of Christ.

References   [ + ]

1. Carl Trueman, “Reflections on the Reformed Resurgence,” Modern Reformation 27, no. 5 (September/October 2018): 14-21.
2. Ibid., 15.
3, 5. Ibid., 21.
4. Ibid., 17.
6. See, for example, Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 5:1-4; 1 Timothy 3:1-7, 5:17; Titus 1:7; 1 Corinthians 4:1.
7. Isaac Watts, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, 1707.
8. Jordan Kauflin, All I Have is Christ (Sovereign Grace Praise), 2008.

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